A letter from
an alumnus about Professor Robert Roswell Palmer
October 9, 2002
Your brief mention of the death of R.R. Palmer contains several inaccuracies.
You mention his "high school" textbook "that was widely
used as a high school textbook for years."
The book is used to this day and is now in its eighth edition and
published by McGraw Hill. A second inaccuracy it is used at both
the high schooljmd college level.
I understand it is so well considered that it has been translated into Chinese
among other languages.
Professor Palmer was given very short shrift in our magazine. He deserves
a feature article. A full article would note the number of prestigious historical
works he penned during his long life lifetime, that he taught at Yale as
well as at Washington University and Princeton, that he was the recipient
of the Bancroft Prize in 1959, that he was past president of the American
Historical Association, and upon his retirement in 1977, he was afrdiated
with the Institute for Advanced Study. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
As a former student of his, I think the PAW can do better than what you
provided in the September issue.
Robert Roswell "R.R." Palmer was one of the
most distinguished historians of Europe Princeton ever had on its roster.
Those of us who studied under him knew him as a shy man of great generosity
who was an exemplary gentleman and scholar. His work on the period
of the French Revolution opened up many new perspectives in a field somewhat
dead with the pall of conventional thinking.
Since he was a liberal and a proponent of the French Revolution we affectionately
referred to him as Robespierre, since he did share that French leader's
moral rectitude and cool pseudo-Calvinistic or northern self-assurance,
but certainly not his fanaticism or self-righteousness. Despite being
a liberal, Palmer was generous with students of other views and was singularly
sympathetic to the Catholics in the revolutionary drama, something not
often found on the Left. He also popularized for Americans the work of
Georges Lefebvre, a Marxist historian of great ability and encyclopedic
knowledge. Palmer was no Marxist, and he challenged certain leftist French
assumptions sufficiently for real French Marxists to call his great work
The Age of the Democratic Revolution the "Nato" interpretation
of the French Revolution.
His textbook, The History of the Modern World, was probably one
of the most successful textbooks ever in the field of history, both in
pedagogic and in financial terms. It is also an unintentional witness
to the decline of the American mind, for sometime in the 1970s or 1980s
it ceased being widely used in college history survey courses because
students had come to find it too difficult. Palmer's book had not changed;
the intelligence, diligence, and ambitions of American college students
had changed in a downward direction. If we could get college students
today to read and understand it something truly of value would be achieved.
I have often liked to say, only half facetiously, to my students and others
that when I was at Princeton it was still a little bit Calvinistic in
a general way. Now it is more Marxist. I have never been able quite to
say which was better or worse! How would Robert Palmer have felt? I suspect
he would have preferred the aroma of Calvinism more than the brimstone
of the Marxists.
Norman Ravitch *62
University of California